Despite gains in education, some 5.6 million children in Bangladesh remain unschooled (photo by Stephan Uttom)
Every morning around 9am, dozens of boisterous children who flock to the local primary school in Alinagar pass their former classmate Mayarun Akter.
Many of the children are her friends. Some were classmates until last November, when Mayarun was forced out of school shortly before completing second grade.
The school stands a few hundred yards from her family’s dilapidated mud-walled house in a remote corner of northeastern Sylhet district.
“I feel sad when I see my friends go to school. They can learn new things and play, but I cannot,” Mayarun, 12, said in a low voice. Her unclean, worn-out garments hint at extreme poverty, her thin-limbed, pale-skinned body bears marks of malnutrition.
Mayarun attended school regularly for nearly two years, largely because school is free, as are education essentials.
Five months ago, her parents, both farm workers, were forced to take a job a few kilometers across a tiny rivulet that bisects the village to work during the harvest season that ends by March.
The parents assigned Mayarun to look after her sister Yarun, 10, and brother Afsar, 7, forcing the 12-year-old to drop out of school. Their parents can earn up to US$64 a month when they work, which often is infrequent.
“I want to go to school again. I will tell my parents to let me go once they come back home,” Mayarun said.
The school in Alinagar is only one of two primary schools that serve the area’s five villages. The school was set up by Caritas in 2012 through a European Union-funded project called Lighthouse. The project’s long-term goal is to offer basic education within six years to 158,605 unschooled children aged 3-14 from the poorest and most marginalized families in 1,005 villages across Bangladesh.
The first primary school in the area was developed in 1994 by a nongovernmental organization, some eight kilometers away from Alinagar. Mintu Biswas is one of few local children who studied there and made it to college. He is now a teacher at the Alinagar school, along with a female colleague.
“When I was a student, few children went to school, largely because parents were very poor … many are still the same, but things are changing,” he said.
Faisal, 13, was forced to drop out of the fourth grade early this month after his family was evicted from their Dhaka home to make way for the expansion of a local road. The family now shares a home in a northern Dhaka slum with an uncle.
His father, a rickshaw driver, told the boy he can reconsider school once the family settles in a new home. Neither of Faisal's younger siblings has ever attended school.
“I want to go to school,” Faisal told ucanews.com.
The drop-out problem is a multifaceted issue that requires multi-level initiatives, says Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education.
Chowdhury said the drop-out rate is higher among impoverished families and ethnic minorities.
“There are wide-ranging national and regional issues behind this, including poverty, lack of infrastructure and trained teachers, and a lack of a friendly environment for marginalized, tribal and disabled children,” she said.
Stories like Mayarun’s and Faisal’s are as common in Bangladesh as in other South Asian countries.
According to a UNICEF study released in January, a total of 27 million children between the ages 5 to 13 do not attend school in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, 5.6 million children are not in school.
This comes against the backdrop of government’s claim of 100 percent primary school enrollment over the past five years. UNICEF estimates that current school enrollment in Bangladesh to be 98.7 percent, with Bangladesh one of few countries in the region where more girls (99.4 percent) go to school than boys (97.2 percent).
In Bangladesh, primary education is free up to grade five. After that, families start incurring costs for school supplies and food, presenting a stage when the cost burden becomes challenging for disadvantaged families, resulting in maximum drop-outs.
Still the picture is not completely bleak.
The drop-out rate has fallen sharply in the past two decades, from 60 percent in the 1990s to less than 30 percent in 2013, due to government incentives, including monthly stipends for 7.8 million young schoolchildren and large-scale NGO projects like that of Caritas.
The government has nationalized 26,193 primary schools, the jobs of 140,000 schoolteachers and also started a school feeding program for 3 million children, according to SM Mesbahuddin Islam, additional director-general at the Directorate of Primary Education.
Chowdhury says the government stipend program was a significant step in reducing the drop-out rates among younger children, but she has more effective prescriptions.
“For poor children the government should make education free up to secondary level and the stipend amount needs to be doubled. But the most important step will be providing cooked midday meals in schools in poor areas,” she said. “It will bring the drop-out rate down to zero.”
She noted that a similar meal project was widely successful in India, where the government collects funds though an education tax.
Officials say the midday meal scheme has been introduced in some schools as a pilot project, but a countrywide project, estimated to cost $200 million, is not on the table yet.
“Nowadays, we are focusing more on infrastructure and human resource development, school enrollment and providing education materials,” Islam told ucanews.com.